Obituaries

Ethiopia: Land of silence and starvation

MEKI, ETHIOPIA — Geoffrey York for Saturday’s Globe and Mail 

Farmer Geda Shenu (left), who lives in a drought-hit rural area near the town of Meki, Ethiopia, is struggling to feed his children and has petitioned for government assistance. The Ethiopian government has restricted coverage of the drought and is hampering the work of international aid groups.

A famine is growing across Ethiopia, but the government is clamping down on information – even ejecting aid agencies that could help bring aid for fear of provoking unrest and losing their grip on power

On market day in the dusty town of Meki, the few cobs of corn sold by the hawkers are scrawny, pale, scabby and pockmarked. Yet the price of this meagre food has doubled since last year – because so many farmers have seen their corn harvests fail.

“We are between life and death,” says 50-year-old farmer Geda Shenu, who was forced to buy corn at Meki market after most of his crops failed in this year’s drought. He shows the empty weed-filled fields where he planted corn and beans, crops that never grew when the rains never came.

To survive, he is selling one of his two oxen and giving his family just two sparse meals a day. He and his neighbours have marched down to the local government office to sign a petition pleading for government help. “If we don’t get any aid, we will die,” he says. “How can we feed our children?”

It’s a story the Ethiopian government does not want told.

On the 25th anniversary of the famine that killed nearly a million Ethiopians in 1984, any talk of drought and hunger is still a highly sensitive issue in this impoverished country, subject to draconian controls by the government. Two regimes were toppled in the 1970s and 1990s because of discontent over famines, and the current regime is determined to avoid their fate.

Aid agencies that dare to speak out publicly, or even to allow a photo of a malnourished child at a feeding centre, can be punished or expelled from the country. Visas or work permits are often denied, projects can be delayed, and import approvals for vital equipment can be buried. Most relief agencies are prohibited from allowing visits by journalists or foreigners, except under strict government control.

After a disastrous series of crop failures, the number of Ethiopians needing emergency aid has jumped from 4.9 million to 6.2 million in the past 10 months. Yet most journalists are barred from travelling to the countryside to document the drought. Relief workers avoid any public comments about the rising malnutrition, and none will talk candidly to journalists except on condition of anonymity.

Another restriction is even more damaging: Foreign agencies are not permitted to do their own independent assessments of malnutrition this year. Instead, they must be accompanied by government officials in joint teams that are difficult and time-consuming to negotiate, delaying the response to regional emergencies.

Aid agencies have known since July that at least seven million people will need emergency aid in Ethiopia this year, based on detailed assessments across the country. But the government delayed the release of these figures, continuing to insist publicly that only 5.3 million people needed help.

Finally, after months of mystifying delays, the government announced in late October that 6.2 million people needed emergency aid – still below the true figure, and too late to trigger a large-scale fundraising effort this year. Another estimate is due to be released in mid-November, unless it too is delayed.

Why such heavy-handed controls from a government that is seen as a U.S. ally in the Horn of Africa, a country that is still viewed sympathetically by most of the world? One reason is the election scheduled for May. The long-ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, is keeping a tight grip on the vote. The last election, in 2005, was widely criticized for vote-rigging and fraud, and about 200 people were killed after the election when police fired on opposition protesters.

Since then, the government has strengthened its control of the country. Maoist-style neighbourhood committees watch over all activity in the villages, with informants appointed for every five families in some areas. Local elections in 2008 were so carefully managed that the opposition ended up with only a tiny handful of the three million seats.

But nobody expects the controls to disappear after the May election. The ruling party has always been sensitive about any questioning of its ability to feed the country. Its own rise to power in 1991 was largely a result of the famines of the 1980s. And it knows that the long reign of Emperor Haile Selassie was brought crashing down after the globally televised images of the 1974 famine.

Relief agencies say it is harder to make a global appeal for help for Ethiopia when the official estimates are politicized, minimized and delayed. By the time the 2009 appeal was released in late October, only two months were left in the year.

“This year’s fight is over,” said an aid worker at one of the biggest agencies. “The children who were at risk of death in the summer have died by now.”

In some of the hardest-hit regions, foreign relief agencies have extremely limited access. Their movements are tightly controlled, partly because of military operations against rebel groups in the Somali region. Several of the biggest international agencies were expelled from the region or withdrew under pressure in 2007 and 2008.

In another region, Tigray, aid agencies are heavily restricted, because Tigray is the traditional base of the ruling EPRDF. “It’s a black spot, because it’s supposed to be a model of success,” one aid worker says. “When people are starving, the information doesn’t get out.”

The government is widely suspected of using the foreign aid shipments to reward its supporters. Up to 20 per cent of the aid is “lost” before it reaches the neediest people, but the diverted sacks of food are often noticed at military barracks, according to one aid worker.

When Ethiopia is hit by cholera outbreaks, as often happens, the government prefers to call it acute watery diarrhea because it dislikes the bad publicity that cholera attracts. The latest cholera outbreak, which began in August, has sickened thousands of people, but the government called it AWD and minimized the numbers. When the true numbers finally surfaced in a United Nations document, the government was so furious that it suspended its co-operation meetings with the relief agencies for a month.

In fear of government punishment, many agencies fall into self-censorship. “There’s a whole layer of anxiety that we’re all operating under,” one veteran worker said. “The obsession with control has been even stronger than last year.”

Some Western diplomats argue that the government’s euphemisms and public evasions are unimportant because the accurate assessment data is known internally to the key agencies that supply emergency aid to Ethiopia. Compared with many other African countries, they say, Ethiopia is relatively efficient in distributing aid and is introducing good programs to expand health care and food delivery in rural regions.

But others say the government’s sensitivities and restrictions are hampering the world’s response to Ethiopia’s emergencies, delaying the flow of crucial aid for months.

“If you delay the life-saving response, lives don’t get saved,” one relief worker says. “People get weaker and less productive. And the response is a short-term band-aid. If you recognize a situation earlier, the response can reduce the chances of needing emergency aid in the future.”

Another aid worker is even more blunt. “The government is locked into a cycle of very significant denial,” he said. “It’s playing with millions of lives.”

Ethiopia has been hit by a series of crop failures and droughts since 2007, and the cumulative effect is taking a heavy toll. In addition to the 6.2 million who are officially deemed to need emergency aid, another 7 million are already getting food aid because they are chronically vulnerable to food shortages, meaning that Fully one-sixth of Ethiopia’s 80 million people are on food aid.

The global recession, meanwhile, is making it harder to raise funds from international donors. Canada has given $54-million to the Ethiopian relief effort this year, but the overall level of global donations is far below what is needed. As a result, the food rations for most Ethiopian recipients are barely half of the needed level.

But instead of redoubling its efforts to seek help, Ethiopia is tightening its controls as the 2010 election approaches. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi repeatedly denies that Ethiopia has a food crisis and accuses the “food aid industry” and the “lords of poverty” of deliberately inflating the number of Ethiopians who need aid.

Relief agencies give troubling accounts of how their work is becoming more difficult. One agency was forced to halt its food distribution for three months in one region because the government was unhappy with a local media article.

Another agency tried to offer help after a massive blaze destroyed 20 homes in an Addis Ababa shantytown this week. At first welcomed by firefighters, the agency was abruptly ordered to leave when security agents arrived on the scene. “Even for something that was so obviously a disaster, where we could have helped, there was suspicion and distance,” a worker said.

Most foreign journalists are prohibited from travelling outside Addis Ababa, the capital. The Globe and Mail twice applied for permission to visit rural regions, but both applications were rejected. In the end I had to travel without permission, at the risk of arrest if I was discovered.

When I asked a government official why I was barred from reporting in rural districts, he said too many journalists were too interested in the drought, which he said was entirely due to climate change and had nothing to do with the government.

The very few journalists who do obtain permission to visit a feeding centre are accompanied by a government “minder” at all times. Feeding-centre staff are sometimes interrogated by security agents after they talk to foreign journalists, making them fearful of saying anything.

The government maintains a “black list” of foreign correspondents who are deemed unfriendly to the regime, and some have been expelled, refused entry, or detained at the Addis Ababa airport when they arrive. Several Ethiopian journalists who work for foreign media have fled the country for fear of punishment.

The Ethiopian government, using technology from its new economic partners in China, has blocked many websites that criticize the government, including those of Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists. The same Chinese technology is allowing the authorities to monitor e-mails and cellphones, making relief agencies and journalists nervous about government eavesdropping on their conversations.

Back in the drought-stricken Meki region, a farmer named Gudeta Beriso points to a field of withered corn stalks, surrounded by empty fields. “In the old days, all of this was covered by corn,” he said.

“Now you don’t see anything. The fields are just rubbish. We haven’t had a good crop for two years. We are worried about the future. We are shouting for help.”

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